This sermon was preached at Asbury United Methodist Church in Livermore, CA on Sunday, February 15, 2009. The lectionary texts I used in the sermon were 2 Kings 5.1-14 and Mark 1.40-45.[audio:http://www.pomomusings.com/wp-content/mp3/If-You-Choose.mp3]
Before we look at this story of the healing of the leper, I wanted to read just a brief passage from a book that I’m sure many of you read during your daily devotions, possibly even this morning. It’s from a book in the Hebrew Scriptures called Leviticus:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a shiny spot on their skin that may be a defiling skin disease, they must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest. The priest is to examine the sore on the skin, and if the hair in the sore has turned white and the sore appears to be more than skin deep, it is a defiling skin disease. When the priest examines them, he shall pronounce them ceremonially unclean. If the shiny spot on the skin is white but does not appear to be more than skin deep and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest is to isolate the affected person for seven days. On the seventh day the priest is to examine them, and if he sees that the sore is unchanged and has not spread in the skin, he is to isolate them for another seven days. On the seventh day the priest is to examine them again, and if the sore has faded and has not spread in the skin, the priest shall pronounce them clean; it is only a rash. They must wash their clothes, and they will be clean. But if the rash does spread in their skin after they have shown themselves to the priest to be pronounced clean, they must appear before the priest again. The priest is to examine them, and if the rash has spread in the skin, he shall pronounce them unclean; it is a defiling skin disease.
Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.
Pleasant stuff for a Sunday morning, huh? But this is the life that the leper in this story had to lead. It was commanded by the Law. I think the last paragraph is the one that is the most impacting of all: “They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.” Isolation. Total isolation.
If one had been pronounced unclean and wanted to be pronounced clean, there was a whole process for how that would happen, and only the priest could declare someone clean or unclean, as he was the representative of God on earth and could speak for God. This leper from our story today knew he had no chance of being pronounced clean by the priest. We don’t actually know much about him, but we can assume if he thought there might be a chance of his getting a clean bill of health from the priest, he would have gone through the prescribed process that we just read about in Leviticus.
But instead, he turns to Jesus. He seeks out Jesus and comes to him, begging, on his knees. It’s interesting to me that he doesn’t ask Jesus to heal him, he doesn’t say, “Please Jesus, heal me.” But yet, he comes to Jesus and in a way, makes a faith statement. “If you choose, you can make me clean.” So here is one, who by every one else’s standards is an outsider, and he comes to Jesus and makes this strong faith statement. In a way, the leper is saying much more than just “I know you can heal me.” Rather, the leper is saying to Jesus that he knows that Jesus is God, or at least has the power that comes from God – because only God can “make one clean.”
Jesus’ response is one which we may not be comfortable with, one we may not fully understand. The text says Jesus was “moved with pity.” After he heals the leper, Mark writes that Jesus sternly warned the leper and sent him away. I had always heard that Jesus being “moved with pity” was a good thing – that he had compassion for the leper. But some other manuscripts in the Greek actually use a slightly different word that is interpreted as Jesus “becoming angry.”
Angry? How could Jesus be angry at the leper for asking to be healed? Well, perhaps Jesus isn’t angry at the leper, but rather, at the entire social structure that has led to this situation in the first place. “They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.” Here was a system in which the priests had the power to pronounce someone unclean – a system which created insiders and outsiders, a system which drew lines, a system with clear boundaries…the priests of the day had the power to condemn this certain group of people and to cause them to become outcasts. Shouldn’t this have angered Jesus? Shouldn’t we be angry when this same things happens today?
Last week I showed you Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” that is painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In that fresco, we see the Almighty God reaching out toward Adam, and in the close up you could see how they were just about to touch hands. And in today’s story, we have this same God, in the person of Jesus Christ, reaching out and actually touching the leper. And this is the climax of the story, the moment that I think keeps drawing me back to this story.
Jesus does the unthinkable. The unfathomable. Jesus sets aside the Levitical Law, he sets aside the cultural practices of the time, the way in which you were supposed to deal with lepers. Jesus risks his health, his reputation and even his own ministry. This is just in Chapter 1 of Mark, and we see Jesus about to perform this action that would cause him to become ceremonially unclean.
And the thing is…he didn’t have to. There are times when Jesus heals people without touching them; think of the Roman Centurion’s servant – Jesus said that he would be healed simply because of the Centurion’s faith. So, Jesus didn’t have to touch the leper. And maybe he shouldn’t have. Maybe it wouldn’t have drawn as much attention and he could have stayed in the cities and healed more people.
But, amidst all of the reasons to not touch the leper, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. In fact, when you do look through the gospels and read some of the encounters of Jesus’ healings, you will see that Jesus generally does extend his hand and touch those whom he heals. And at the moment of Jesus’ touch – the leper is healed. He is made clean and pure.
What happens next – honestly, I’m not entirely sure what to do with. Jesus tells the man not to go out and share about what has happened, but to go back to the priest – and to follow the prescribed process that we heard about earlier in Leviticus. On the one hand, Jesus seems to break through the social boundaries and religious laws by reaching out and touching the physically and spiritually unclean leper. Yet, Jesus then seems to be very clear with the leper that he must go back and do things “by the book.”
I wonder if Jesus knew that this man would never fully be accepted back into the community until he had the priest’s blessing. Perhaps that is why we see Jesus angrily warning the healed leper and sending him away. Perhaps this is a window for us into the inner anguish of Jesus. The fact that he was God, and had the power to come down from Heaven and heal all of these people, and yet, he knew that if this man was to be accepted by his fellow townspeople, he would have to go through the traditional processes, the system.
Whatever the reason, it is the leper who we see in the end who can’t help but speak of his encounter with Jesus! He probably didn’t understand the drastic implications his actions would have for Jesus, but it was not within him to remain silent, to follow the prescribed process, to live according to the law and social conventions of the time. The leper rejects the demands of the law – in order to spread the gospel – to share about his encounter that forever changed his life.
And while we can rejoice with the leper and share in the joy over his healing, we also see that this had consequences for Jesus. The text says, “He could no longer go into a town openly.”
Does that sound familiar? “They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”
Through Jesus’ actions of love, and compassion and radical inclusion, the leper is welcomed in, the outsider becomes the insider. And Jesus takes his place. The leper had to live outside the camp – but now he can roam freely. Jesus goes from freely roaming the cities and towns and now has to stay out in the country. Even though Jesus would ultimately fulfill his ministry by taking the place of humanity on the cross, he begins that process here already in the first chapter of Mark – he takes the place of the leper, so that the leper may experience life, life to the fullest.
This is a powerful story – a wonderful story of the grace of God, of Jesus’ love and compassion for this leper. But I think it could be tempting to just think about it in terms of a “wonderful story” and not realize the implications it has for our own lives. Sure, we don’t cross paths with lepers, in our day to day lives…Or do we?
Who are the modern day lepers in our world today? Are there people who society, or the church, has forgotten about? Are there people who we treat as “unclean” or un-redeemable? Are there people who we are afraid to “touch” in our world today?
I think there are many people today in our world, many people right here in Livermore, who can share experiences of when they’ve felt like the leper, when they’ve felt like they don’t belong, like they aren’t wanted, like they are being shunned or ignored. Yes, we did just recently elect an African-American president, but we still live in a country that struggles on a daily basis with racial tensions. We do have a society where Ellen, an openly-gay woman, can host an incredibly popular talk-show that millions of people watch, but we still live in country that struggles on a daily basis with homophobia. As a country, we are making advancements toward women’s equality, but we still live in a country where nearly three in four family violence victims are female. We are a society that often forgets about the elderly, those who are sick and dying, those with AIDs, those with cancer…there are so many in our world today, many people we interact with on a daily basis, who may find themselves feeling like the leper from time to time.
And when we think about this story – we need to be reminded that Jesus’ actions serve as an example for us today. Many people today fear those who are different – we operate with the fear of the unknown in our lives. And yet, Jesus’ actions tell us that it is our calling to break down the social boundaries, to share the compassion and love of God with all people. To reach out, extend our hands, and touch those who society excludes, and welcome them in. As we saw in Jesus’ experience, these types of actions are not without consequences. But we are called to follow Jesus.
The leper said to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus replied, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Let us also choose – each day of our lives – to live in ways that exemplify Jesus’ love and compassion for all.